Why are really smart people sometimes really bad at explaining the things they know? The answer: the curse of knowledge, the idea that having expertise in something makes it harder to talk about it in a way that relates to people unversed in the topic.
In other words, an expert no longer remembers what is common knowledge, and what is expertise.
Think of a math teacher trying to explain a theorem to a confused student, but their explanation is full of equally confusing mathematical terms and concepts. The teacher is unintentionally assuming a basic grasp of the subject matter and its language, and can’t even imagine what the student doesn’t know or doesn’t understand.
The expert’s struggle to communicate their subject to a layperson is frequently hampered by this subconscious barrier. This is just as true in UX Design, where we have the job of communicating our companies’ products, services, and value proposition to new visitors.
Talking about these things without referencing industry jargon or company-specific terms can be surprisingly tricky.
Recently, we spent some time speaking with Gajan Retnasaba, the head of conversion at Spiralyze. He pointed out to us how commonly the “curse of knowledge” afflicts design teams – “It’s really hard to put yourself in the position of someone new to your company, they don’t understand your jargon” – and discussed how user testing can help overcome it.
Three big ideas about avoiding the curse of knowledge came out during our conversation with Gajan:
(1) Prioritize clarity over cleverness
(2) Find out what your users don’t know
(3) Use your whole design to support your messaging
Keep it simple.
Prioritize clarity over cleverness. It’s taken us a long time to become experts in our product and our industry. It’s important to remember that using the advanced, industry-specific terminology we’ve picked up along the way might actually prevent conversions.
Gajan makes a point to stay conscious of this at Spiralyze. His team always emphasizes to clients the need to convey their message in a universal way.
“We are trying to set up for the customer, and trying to develop that empathy for what it’s like to be a complete noob,” Gajan says. “We have to remember what it was like not to have the vocabulary or the understanding.”
Time and again, we’ve found complicated language to be a UX challenge on many sites and apps.
In a previous UXspresso interview, for example, we saw how a tree selling website confused users by grouping their products according to genuses and species – spruces, maples, junipers. But their visitors, having less familiarity with tree taxonomy, preferred to find trees based on uses – shade, ornamentation, screening and privacy.
After the company dropped their expert-level classification system, they saw their conversions (and revenue) jump.
Gajan finds himself discussing this concept with clients often: “If you focus on impressing an internal audience, you will never win over outsiders.”
Keep it simple, and communicate in a way that your users (not you and your colleagues!) will understand.
Find out what your users don’t know.
Part of the challenge with the curse of knowledge is that you don’t know what other people don’t know. They might have questions about something you take for granted, and it would never occur to you.
We need to actively search for what our users don’t understand. Usually, this can be solved simply by providing users the opportunity to share their viewpoint.
“We always think that it’s clear,” Gajan says, but points out that it’s often not apparent to us what our users don’t know.
User testing can expose some unexpected hangups. During our conversation, Gajan told us about a SaaS client that saw many testers asking if the company’s software worked on a Mac during their user test sessions.
Learn more: user testing better products and user testing new products
This wasn’t a question that the company was even looking into, and it wasn’t targeted in their test script; yet it came up organically from several different users.
““This question doesn’t even make sense, because it’s a SaaS product … of course it works on a Mac!” Gajan says. Nonetheless, the researchers heard this same question pop up multiple times in their usability testing videos.
It came up so many times, Gajan says, that “we just stuck a giant Mac and PC logo on the page—‘compatible with Mac & PC’—everywhere.” Sure enough, “the client got a nice lift.”
In Gajan’s experience, user research is vital for preventing misunderstandings like this. What would seem to be common knowledge to the site’s owners was creating confusion for a sizable chunk of their visitors – and they never would have known!
Without seeking out the questions your users have, the curse of knowledge could keep you from realizing what’s keeping your conversion rates down.
Leverage design to communicate your message.
You’ve heard it before: sometimes, less is more… less words, that is.
Pitching your company’s value proposition and persuading visitors requires the right balance of explanatory text and helpful visual design.
Too much dense text, and users could miss key information.
Gajan told us a story about one of his previous clients, a gourmet recipe company, whose visitors too frequently perceived the brand and its offerings to be similar to Lean Cuisine.
They were frustrated because their food, which users can make it in just 15 minutes, was also gourmet and organic. But because this was all laid out in a lot of text blurbs on their home page, all that many users were remembering was the time savings.
“We asked customers, for example, what’s different about this company, and they couldn’t figure it out…” Gajan says.
After realizing that users weren’t picking up on all of their benefits, Spiralyze helped the client add a pull-up ingredient list over the meal images. Instead of just writing about it with text, they used a visual element to demonstrate that part of the brand’s identity.
This holistic approach allowed the site to communicate more things at once, and allowed the users to actually detect and retain them all.
“The ROI is just eye-popping,” Gajan said of their research-backed design choices. Adding the ingredient lists, he noted, led to a double-digit increase in conversions.
Users draw rapid conclusions about whether or not your company can meet their needs. Communicating holistically through text, visuals, and more will encourage them to choose you.
It’s not easy to know what information your users need, and how they need to hear it. You might know everything there is to know about your field, but that doesn’t make it easier – in fact, it’s probably making it harder.
Fortunately, you can ask. You can test. You can do surveys. You can talk to customers.
Doing user testing, you’re constantly reminded how much there is to learn about the users. You can never predict what people will think and say. (At TryMyUI, we experience this every day!)
The important thing is to remember that you don’t know how much you don’t know, and to put in the time and effort to find out.